Smoking Ears and Screaming Teeth - Trevor Norton (2010)

Behind the Lines

‘A hero may keep his head while those around him are losing theirs, but do they know something he doesn’t’?’ – with apologies to Rudyard Kipling

It is perhaps ironic that the war finished Forssmann’s research career, because wartime is a period of feverish research activity. Governments are keen to fund anything that might help the war effort or save lives.

The citation for Forssmann’s Nobel Prize praised him for daring to attempt such dangerous experiments. Another example of his bravery was that he continued operating in his field hospital with Russian artillery shells exploding nearby. But courage can get you into trouble. It puts you in situations that are best avoided. There is an old Chinese proverb that says: ‘Of all the thirty-six alternatives, running away is best.’

Fighting men are rightly celebrated for their bravery under fire, but those whose courage surfaced on the Home Front are often overlooked. During the Second World War Britain was sustained by the many thousands who volunteered to become firemen, air-raid wardens, munitions workers and bomb-disposal officers.

It was not until the mass bombing of cities began that the War Ministry realised it had no idea what to do with unexploded bombs. There were no disposal squads at all. They advertised to see if anyone would like to try their hand at bomb disposal. Engineers and scientists seeking a technical challenge came forward and they were not alone. An architect volunteered, having decided that Hitler was ‘becoming a bloody menace’. One of the newly trained squads comprised an earl, his secretary and his chauffeur. Their training was perfunctory. One trainee recalls that although the instructor could show them a variety of British bombs, he had only a single example of a German one. When asked what the markings on the casing signified, he hadn’t the slightest idea. They were shown a fuse, sorted into groups and sent out to deal with live bombs.

The scale of the problem was immense. For eight terrible months London and other cities were pulverised by vast armadas of German bombers. One squadron leader said, ‘There are oceans of them.’ On London alone they dropped up to a thousand tonnes of bombs every night. When the air-raid siren sounded the population vanished underground or into little tin shelters half-buried in the garden. A raid might last for twelve or more hours, night after night. When a cockney woman was asked where her husband was, she replied, ‘He’s in the army, the bloody coward.’

One morning, when buildings had as usual been reduced to rubble, one street was found to be littered with waxen-faced bodies – Madame Tussaud’s had taken a hit. Surprisingly, falling bombs were not the main cause of deaths. London’s anti-aircraft guns were set to maximum elevation and banged away. The gunners admitted that they hardly ever hit a plane, but the sound of gunfire was good for morale. Unfortunately, one’s morale could be dented. What goes up and explodes then falls as shrapnel. Roofs and streets clattered with a hailstorm of hot metal fragments. It is estimated that they killed far more people than the bombs.

When the siren sounded the ‘All Clear’ it merely indicated that bombs were no longer falling, not that they were no longer exploding. Every morning the bomb squads arrived as reliably as the milkman. Their tool kit could not be accused of over-sophistication. It contained a spanner, a brace and bit, a rope with a hook on it, a torch and mirror, a ball of string and a pickaxe and spade. Most unexploded bombs ended up deeply embedded in the ground and a large pit had to be dug to gain access to the casings and the nuts holding the bombs’ fuses in place.

Unfortunately, the bomb squads had no idea what they were dealing with. One in ten bombs failed to explode, but how could the squads distinguish a genuine dud from a bomb with a delayed-action fuse? Neither alternative was a happy prospect. An indecisive ‘dud’ might revive at the sight of a spanner, and the bombs’ time fuses were of unknown duration so the operator had no way of knowing whether they were set to go off two days hence or in two minutes’ time. One officer cursorily examined a UXB (unexploded bomb) and went to collect his squad. As the men walked towards the site the bomb went off. Had they driven and got there earlier they would have all been killed.

In addition to conventional bombs the Luftwaffe dropped torpedo-shaped mines that were almost two and a half metres long and sixty centimetres in diameter. They descended slowly on parachutes, twirling like sycamore seeds. They were packed with TNT and the blast could fling a man a quarter of a mile. Most were on time fuses and some were magnetic. Even the proximity of a spade could set them off.

In theory a bomb could be disarmed by simply removing the detonator. In practice it was often a long and scary business. By the end of October 1940 there was a backlog of 3,000 UXBs awaiting attention.

When a bomb ended up beside the foundations of St Paul’s Cathedral it was quickly dug up and loaded onto a lorry, which then raced through the East End to the Hackney Marshes. There it exploded, leaving a crater thirty metres in diameter.

Bomb disposal is so dangerous that the procedure tries to ensure only one man at a time is at risk. The operator attempting to disarm the bomb communicates his every action to his number two who is at a safe distance. Number two writes everything down so that should there be a ‘mishap’ he would know what had been done right and where it went wrong. It would be his turn next and he would not care to make the same mistake.

Usually the Ammunition Examiner (as the bomb-disposal expert came to be called) worked in a deep pit kneeling in mud. Imagine the huge bomb looming over him. He strains to turn a reluctant nut. When it is free he begins to withdraw the fuse gently. He can’t tell what the fuse is attached to until it is almost out. The enemy may have made the job more dangerous by adding a second fuse or linking it to a sensitive motion sensor. Rather than withdraw the fuse entirely the ammunition examiner sometimes ‘trepans’ the bomb, cutting a hole in the casing with a brace and bit, then using his torch and little mirror to peer into its dark interior. Like an overcautious dentist he never touches anything accidentally. He surveys the firing mechanism and forms a plan to disarm the bomb. By this time his hands are trembling and sweat is running into his eyes. They begin to burn and he can’t see properly. He is alone in the loneliest place in the world.

Winston Churchill called this a ‘task of the utmost peril’. It became even more perilous when the Germans began deliberately falsifying the numbers on the bomb’s casing that identified what type of fuse it had. This fooled the operator into believing he was dealing with a type that he had defused several times before. In fact it was entirely different and far more dangerous. This ruse was only discovered when an examiner removed one of the new fuses and it went phutt. It had got wet and misfired. The lucky man had an intact fuse that could be examined in detail. That was one problem solved. Another disposal expert devised a method for using liquid nitrogen to freeze the battery in some bombs thus removing the detonator’s power supply.

Someone remembered that ten years previously a German firm had tried to sell its fuse designs to the British Air Ministry. He searched the London Patent Office and found the company’s patent complete with diagrams of the deadly double-capacitor circuit that was giving British bomb-disposal squads so much grief. Had anyone at the Bletchley Park code-breaking establishment riffled through the patents for encrypting devices they would have come across the details of the ENIGMA machine and could have cracked the German codes overnight.

The life expectancy of a bomb-disposal officer in the 1940s was seven to ten weeks. The volunteer earl successfully dismantled thirty-four bombs until the thirty-fifth dismantled him. The strain on the survivors began to tell. Churchill visited the squads to bolster morale. He thought they looked different from other heroes: ‘They were gaunt, they were haggard, their faces had a bluish look … we are apt to overuse the word “grim”. It should be reserved for the UXB Disposal Squads.’

If the examiner is close by when a bomb goes off, the blast enters every aperture of his body and he explodes outwards. At the same instant fragments of the bomb’s casing become supersonic razors that shred his body. Ducking is not a viable option.

The men’s greatest fear was not this instant annihilation, but the smaller accident that might leave them seriously maimed.

The George Cross was instituted as the equivalent of the Victoria Cross for those on the Home Front. The majority were awarded to bomb-disposal personnel. They were not without fear. One screamed to be hauled out of a pit because it was infested with rats.

When the war ended there were around two million tonnes of British munitions, including 130,000 tonnes of poison-gas canisters, as well as 600,000 tonnes of German ammunition, all to be disposed of. The German dumps had been partially destroyed by Allied action and the shells were scattered and damaged. This made them unpredictable and more dangerous. High explosives were blown up. Propellants and small-arms ammunition were burnt, sixty tonnes at a time. It was like thousands of machine guns firing at once. Seventeen ships dumped the poison-gas weapons into the Atlantic Ocean.

There were numerous accidents both small and large. When thirty-seven tonnes of grenades containing nitroglycerine were detonated the explosion brought down the ceilings of houses over three kilometres away in the village of Trawsfyndd. In 1946 explosives were being loaded onto a train in Germany when suddenly there was an explosion that set off others. Two trucks and twenty-nine wagons laden with munitions simply disappeared. The disposal teams laboured through the night to douse the flames and prevent further blasts. To everyone’s surprise only eight men were killed. Of all the bomb-disposal officers who died during the 1940s, a third were killed after peace was declared, while they were employed on munitions disposal.

UXBs are regularly discovered even today. They may be uncovered in a garden or on a mantelpiece. In the 1970s the television drama series Danger UXB alerted viewers to the fact that grandad’s souvenir could be a live anti-personnel butterfly bomb filled with shrapnel. An estate agent clearing the possessions of a deceased pensioner called in the Ordnance Corps to remove his collection of grenades, shells, fuses, ammunition and mines. A long-retired squadron leader used a shell to massage his prolapsed piles (or so he said), until one day it vanished from sight. At Accident and Emergency he was attended by both nurses and a beaming bomb-disposal officer.

Anyone who tackles explosive devices knows that no matter how skilled or careful he is, sooner or later his luck may run out. To retire alive and undamaged must be an immense relief, a chance to live a life in which a sneeze is the most violent explosion you are likely to meet. Yet several of the retired officers cannot shed the need to experiment with lethal mechanisms. They spend their civilian years defusing explosive devices for the Metropolitan police.

The military bomb disarmers are now called Ammunition Technical Officers (ATOs) although the squad leader is usually referred to as ‘Felix’, after the cartoon cat that had nine lives. In this job nine lives might not be enough.

They are better trained and better equipped than their predecessors. They even have mobile robots to reconnoitre and sometimes remotely neutralise bombs. The less hands-on the officer is, the more likely he is to retain his hands.

Every time an ATO is killed, the device responsible is replicated to determine why it detonated. The findings are circulated so that the same mistake doesn’t happen again. It is a job in which the new man truly steps in dead men’s shoes.

Terrorist devices come disguised as cars, letters and shopping bags. At an ordnance depot in Northern Ireland the soldiers kept fit by playing football in the yard. The sniffer dogs joined in and worried the ball so much that it split open to reveal that it was stuffed with insulating foam and Semtex. Fortunately the foam had clogged the firing mechanism. Not every suspicious parcel lives up to expectations. One left outside Bristol Barracks was tackled with a controlled explosion that filled the air with fluttering leaflets explaining how to deal with suspicious parcels.

The task of dealing with terrorist explosive devices has become even more hazardous because they are now improvised and therefore unpredictable. They can be detonated by a time clock or a motion sensor, but also remotely by mobile phone or a car’s electronic key. Sometimes the bomber watches the officer from a distance and waits until he stoops over the device. The officer may not get that far if he fails to spot the secondary device hidden in the roadside rubbish on his lonely walk towards the more obvious and prominently placed bomb.

Every ATO knows that the terrorists only have to get lucky once, whereas he has to be lucky every time. It takes a cool, courageous person to carry such a burden. Over twenty years of conflict in Northern Ireland ammunition technicians earned 175 awards and medals for gallantry.

Some of them do it for the thrill of working with cutting-edge technology and the intellectual satisfaction of countering the bombers’ ingenuity. They know they are saving lives. They also earn the admiration of every fighting soldier, which can be summarised as: ‘Bloody hell. I wouldn’t do their job.’

While the disposers of bombs consider explosions as events to be avoided, one physiologist sought them out. His name was Cameron Wright.

Cam, as he was known to his friends, was one of a hidden army of back-room boffins fighting the enemy with their intellect and courage. He worked at the Royal Naval Physiological Laboratory at Alverstoke in Hampshire, an array of ramshackle wooden huts that had started life as cargo containers.

Cam carried out risky experiments on the effects of X-rays on human tissue, his human tissue. With the outbreak of war, the scientific adviser to the Ministry of Defence asked Cam if he would help out on ‘something frightfully hush-hush’.

Barnes Wallis had designed a bomb that in theory could skip across water to explode at the base of a dam. Cam was to be the on-board observer during the trials. They didn’t go smoothly. One bomb fragmented and shrapnel perforated the aircraft’s elevators, another produced such a water spout when dropped that it damaged the wings. On both occasions the plane just managed to land safely.

Eventually the bomb was trained to bounce. But could it blow a hole in a dam? There’s a small disused dam in Radnorshire,’ said Wallis. ‘No earthly use any more … and won’t ever be missed. We could try and knock it down.’

So Cam found himself flying over Wales. He started the motor that set the bomb whirling on a spindle. It was the spin that enabled the round bomb to skip across the water. But the mechanism didn’t release the bomb. It spun faster and faster and smoke poured from the spindle. It was primed to explode so Cam grabbed an overhead strut and suspended himself above the bomb bay, kicking the bomb. Time after time his feet shot off the spinning sphere and he lurched forward over the bomb. He later admitted to thinking, ‘This is not only dangerous, but a bloody absurd way to get killed.’ Suddenly the bomb fell free, leaving Cam dangling over the open bay with a dam exploding beneath him.

Explosions were Cam’s speciality. One of his delights was to show newcomers around the establishment and introduce them to some of the research. He once ushered a group around a circular steel tank full of water.

‘I shall now demonstrate the effects of an underwater explosion,’ he announced ominously. ‘Roll up the right-hand shirtsleeve and stick your arm in the water.’ They did so with muted enthusiasm. ‘Right. Fire!’

There was a bang and a plume of water rose from the centre of the tank. The victims assumed that their arms had been amputated at the elbow.

‘That,’ said Cam cheerfully, ‘is what a mere 1.5 grams of explosives feels like. Now put the other arm into one of these tubes and immerse it in the tank.’

Reluctantly they slipped on metal drainpipes or foam-rubber sleeves.

‘Fire!’

Those wearing drainpipes now had two arms that felt as if they had been blown off, whereas the rubber-clad victims suffered hardly at all. ‘There you are,’ said Wright. ‘A pressure of 1,000 pounds per square inch and there are no harmful effects if you wear rubber. Just to prove there is no trick involved, those wearing rubber sleeves please exchange them for drainpipes and we will complete the demonstration.’

The assault divers on D-Day wore suits designed by Cam to protect them from blast. He became an authority on underwater injuries. Explosions are dangerous underwater because the incompressibility of water allows the shock wave to travel much further than in air.

A pressing task was to predict the effects of depth charges on survivors from sunken vessels. With a physicist, A. H. Bebb, Cam examined the dual deadly effects of underwater explosions: the shock wave that can shatter the diver and the ‘water ram’ effect that follows behind to crush him. Cam interviewed survivors of explosions at sea and repeatedly heard stories of how their companions had suddenly lost the power to move their arms and legs, given out a little gasp, then disappeared beneath the waves. He also attended post-mortems on servicemen killed in explosions. Often gross internal injuries gave no external signs.

Cam risked many an explosion. To test the possible insulating effects of an air cushion he relaxed in an inflated immersion suit whilst an enormous explosion was set off beneath him. He is said to have flown a good distance. Much of the research involved suspending volunteer navy divers, plus Cam of course, in the sea and setting off progressively larger explosive charges of TNT at ever-decreasing distances from the victim. ‘It was like being hit over the head with a cricket bat,’ a diver confided. After suffering about thirty blasts each, their symptoms were coolly described in a report: ‘Divers showed increased pulmonary signs [lung damage] and, resulting from clinical findings in chest [broken ribs] and ears [ruptured ear drums], the decision was taken not to subject naval divers to blast at this depth.’

Cam was puzzled that large, distant explosions sometimes did more damage than ones closer to. ‘Dr Cameron Wright, being somewhat disturbed on clinical grounds at the harsh effects produced – apparently by low explosion pulse parameters – dived to 50 feet at a range of 2,100 feet from a 2001b charge. After being blasted, the diver, unable to move his arms and legs, and suffering from severe pain in his back and losing consciousness, had to be pulled to the surface, on account of the shattering effect of the blast waves.’ Cam was hauled out paralysed and bleeding profusely from his mouth, nose and ears.

While slowly recovering in hospital he pondered the cause of his injuries. They were far more severe than those he had previously suffered from blasts that were calculated to give a much greater shock wave. He concluded that because he was suspended in mid-water he hadn’t been struck just once by the blast, but several times almost simultaneously. In relatively shallow water (thirty metres) with a rocky sea floor, the shock waves not only travelled directly through the water but were also reflected from the sea bottom to the surface and from the surface to the bottom. By ill luck Cam had been suspended at the place where all these shock waves met. As soon as he was fit enough he subjected himself again to the same experimental explosion, but at a depth at which he calculated he would miss the multiple blast. Thankfully, this time he ‘did not receive any disturbing sensations’.

A few years later Cam was scheduled to lecture on the effects of underwater blast, but he was called away and a colleague stepped in. One exhibit was the chest X-ray of some poor fellow whose lungs had been shredded by an explosion. The curious colleague peeled back a label in the corner to reveal the patient’s name. It was Cam Wright.

The Admiralty also wanted to know whether it was possible to escape from a disabled submarine at great depth without breathing apparatus. Attempting such a thing was a frightening prospect. Would there be sufficient oxygen in the lungs at depth to prevent the escapee from suffocating on the way up?

Wright’s boss decided that the required experiments were far too dangerous, but when the man was away on holiday Cam did them anyway. He lay completely submerged in cold water in a laboratory chamber pressurised to the equivalent of ninety-one metres’ depth and then exhaled while the pressure was rapidly reduced. Even to close the mouth for a moment risked having his lungs inflate and burst. The desire to breathe in was almost irresistible. He then repeated the experiment from 100 metres at a much slower rate of ascent (0.6 metres per second). It was described by a colleague as ‘a very brave and remarkable thing to do’. As a result of his experiments the Royal Navy adopted the technique of free, buoyant ascent from depths as deep as 180 metres and Cam was awarded the Order of the British Empire for his courage while self-experimenting.

Cameron Wright was one of the forgotten heroes of the Second World War. So were many conscientious objectors. In Britain pacifists who refused to fight were interrogated at special tribunals and, if found to hold genuine humanitarian or religious convictions against killing, were allowed to choose non-combative roles as medical orderlies and ambulance drivers. These jobs were not without danger. Two of the three men to be awarded the Victoria Cross twice were not combatants but a medic and an ambulance driver,

A few ‘conchies’ volunteered to be human guinea pigs in medical trials. Professor Brian Maegraith tested the toxicity of anti-malarial drugs on himself, his colleagues, and volunteers from the Quaker Friends’ Ambulance Unit. Kenneth Mellanby was also in the market for volunteers. He was an entomologist interested in scabies, a skin disease caused by tiny itch mites. They eat their way into the skin and mine a network of burrows, causing terrible irritation. They also deposit faeces in the burrows, which results in septic infections leading to rheumatic fever and serious problems with lymph vessels and kidneys. Some people develop a horrendous, almost incurable complication called ‘crusted scabies’ in which thick scabs cover the entire surface of the hands, arms and feet.

During the 1930s and 1940s scabies was a scourge in Britain. Many children suffered throughout their childhood and adolescence and were excluded from school. Towns had ‘cleansing stations’ for disinfecting the population. At the outbreak of war the condition reached epidemic proportions among the troops. It was estimated that the equivalent of two entire divisions of soldiers were hospitalised with scabies, not to mention the numbers of civilian workers who were also infected.

Mellanby set out to study the biology of the mites and discover how they were transmitted from person to person. He set up his research institute in a Victorian villa in Sheffield with twelve healthy conscientious objectors as his resident guinea pigs. They included a milkman, an artist, a maths teacher, a ladies’ hairdresser and a winkle boiler. Every one of them was a willing participant and remained until the completion of the trails, even persuading some of their friends to participate. Although the newspapers often painted the conchies as cowardly and ignorant, all of Mellanby’s group proved to be intelligent, brave and blessed with a sense of humour. They decided the team needed a coat of arms. Perhaps with a yellow streak, one of them suggested. They chose as their motto ‘Itch dien’.

To see how easy it was to acquire the mites they slept in bedding from infested patients and even wore their under- clothes. Not one of them caught the infection. They felt cheated.

At a lecture to military officers Mellanby stated that scabies was contracted by picking up a young adult female. The audience collapsed with laughter. He meant a female mite – although, when he thought about it, he reckoned that either type of female might do the trick. Perhaps it was a sexually transmitted disease. The mites certainly burrowed happily into the skin of the penis. Mellanby wondered if infected women could be hired to sleep with the volunteers. Would the volunteers be drawn to a scabious corpus? Would experimental adultery look good in the scientific report?

Fortunately, before any women were enlisted two volunteers became infected. The symptoms of scabies took longer than a few days to appear after infection by the mites; the incubation period was up to two months.

The infected volunteers subsequently shared platonic beds with the uninfected ones. Even without intimate contact, a warm bed resulted in successful infection. To follow the progress of the disease they endured the misery it inflicted for nine to eighteen months. They scratched their pyjamas to shreds. Despite suffering from unpleasant infections no one asked for the trial to be curtailed. To test the influence of cleanliness half of them bathed regularly and the others not at all. Shunning washing did not make the symptoms worse although it did reduce the doctors’ enthusiasm for examining the volunteers.

They disproved several myths about the spread of scabies. Received opinion was that verminous soldiers carried the infection into the family home while on leave. In fact it was the other way round. Soldiers were regularly examined and treated, but were reinfected on visits home. The volunteers wrote a poem to clarify this:

Recondite research on a mite

Has revealed that infections begin

On leave with your wife and your children

Or when you are living in sin.

Except in the case of the clergy,

Who accomplish remarkable feats,

And catch scabies and crabs

From door handles and cabs,

And from blankets and lavatory seats.

A hospital unit was set up to test various ‘cures’ for scabies. It treated as many as 150 patients per week.

Scabies was only one of the volunteers’ ordeals. With such willing guinea pigs on hand, Mellanby asked if they would join in other trials. They all volunteered for dietary experiments. As men of principle, they could be trusted absolutely to stick to a diet no matter how unpalatable. They tested the digestibility of the new National Wheatmeal Loaf, whose constituents, it was feared, might impair the body’s ability to absorb calcium. The fears proved to be unfounded.

They also studied vitamin deficiencies. The volunteers survived for almost two years on dull and deficient diets. Those deprived of vitamin C developed scurvy and were treated to wound-healing experiments in which cuts made into the thigh were allowed to heal and then weights were used to measure the force needed to reopen the wound.

Other experiments involved ‘surgical shock’. This is not the immediate shock of being injured but the trauma that develops later and manifests itself as sweating, plummeting blood pressure, rapid pulse and collapse. The volunteers were injected with a chemical to induce all these symptoms and they were then subjected to many ‘somewhat alarming experiences’. A thoroughly bad time was had by all.

To evaluate new anti-malarial drugs they were given a virulent, potentially fatal strain of the disease. All the volunteers became ‘unpleasantly ill’. Because of the potential danger the researchers decided to curtail the experiment, but the volunteers insisted that, because it was designed to relieve human suffering, they too should suffer for as long as the experiment required.

You didn’t have to be a conscientious objector to avoid military service. Those employed on essential war work were also excused. They included scientists working for commercial companies creating new pharmaceutical drugs. During wartime there was an urgent demand for the newly available antibiotics and other drugs. The staff at a Danish pharmaceutical company called Medicinalco, encouraged by the head of research, became enthusiastic self-experimenters. Like a band of brothers they risked their health to hasten drugs to market. They called themselves ‘The Death Battalion’.

There was no compulsion to take part, nor much reward for doing so. They might get a glass of port for giving blood samples. At their annual dinner those who had taken the most risks or suffered the worst side effects were awarded a small plastic skeleton as a memento mori. They were worn with as much pride as any military medal.

Years before, von Pettenkofer had likened his quaffing a cordial of cholera to the act of a soldier: ‘I would have looked death quietly in the eye … I would have died in the service of science like a soldier on the field of honour.’